Passing Grass

The Legislature is on track to approve some changes to the state’s cannabis law, but it’ll be down to the wire

It became clear during the last few days of the regular 2021 New Mexico legislative session that cannabis legalization would not become law before the clock ran out. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham called a special session days later that led to passage of the Cannabis Regulation Act and subsequent legal smoke sessions. Now, two years later, it looks like high priority cannabis measures might not suffer the same fate. Changes to the cannabis law have a week and a half to make it to the governor’s desk, but that’s a lifetime in the last days of the Legislature.

A handful of bills are aimed at changing how cannabis is taxed, where to send revenue and the life of a medical cannabis card. One bill many in the industry have been clamoring for since 2021 might be approved with only days to spare.

House Bill 313 aims to smooth out a disparity between what cannabis microbusinesses and larger producers are allowed to grow. Current law cements plant counts for those smaller growers at 200 mature plants. Larger-scale growers can have up to 20,000 flowering plants and that limit is decided by the more malleable Cannabis Control Division rules. The measure would change microbusinesses’ limit to 10% of what standard producers can grow.

During the bill’s first hearing in the House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee last month, its sponsor, Rep. Andrea Romero, D-Santa Fe, told members without the law change, smaller producers’ ability to expand with market demand would be at the whim of the Legislature.

“We don’t want to have to continue to revisit the plant count every single time we want to raise or lower the plant count for the larger growers,” Romero said.

HB 313 would also create a social equity bureau under the cannabis division. Romero says it would be tasked with making sure all New Mexicans can be represented in the industry if they want.

“We have a very diverse state, and we just want, when we look at how we’re setting up the industry, it to look and feel like our culture,” she says.

Romero says the bill also would give the cannabis division more regulatory powers—a much needed addition to the law.

“We’ve heard different stories about cannabis shops popping up without oversight, and I think this really helps that, just to make sure that they have some more regulatory teeth when it comes to bad actors,” Romero tells SFR.

Another major component of legalization in New Mexico was a separate law passed alongside the CRA that requires automatic expungement of cannabis charges and convictions from before residents could legally puff, puff, pass.

Romero says that proposal, House Bill 314, is meant to clean up the process of expungement, which “is the key portion of why we legalized recreational cannabis.”

Roughly 14,000 criminal cannabis records have been expunged, though there are still more complicated cases languishing in the court system. HB 314, she says, would help the courts identify those types of cases, but would also provide an avenue for people with records to check on the status of their previous convictions or charges.

HB 313 is set for a full House vote and HB 314 is awaiting a hearing in its one and only Senate committee, but another of Romero’s cannabis bills—intended to earmark cannabis tax revenue—is dead because of what she chalks up to “amateur hour in how budgets work” on her part.

House Bill 315 would have pulled a portion of cannabis taxes collected and applied the money to drug education programs. Romero says she has since learned that “you’re supposed to put the money in the budget and then propose the fund.”

“We thought we’d propose the funds, and then be able to work through the interim and then fill up the fund, understanding what the fund was purposed for,” Romero says.

She plans to work on that proposal during the Legislature’s off months.

“I think there’s a lot of really, really awesome opportunities there,” Romero says. “But we will have to work through the interim to do it.”

There are some other cannabis bills in various stages of the process. House Bill 429, which Romero is co-sponsoring, is another clean-up bill that adds cannabis to the list of contraband not allowed in jails and prisons—needed, supporters say, because the plant was inadvertently removed through the Cannabis Regulation Act.

“When we repealed all the laws criminalizing cannabis possession, where it was legal for adults to carry, in the contraband language, all controlled substances were prohibited from being allowed into jails,” she says. “Now we clarify that cannabis is also still not allowed in prison or jail.”

HB 429 is one committee away from the House floor. Assuming approval from the full House, it would go to the Senate for committee assignments.

Two Senate bills are also trucking through committee and floor votes. Senate Bill 242, sponsored by Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, would require medical cannabis patients to renew their cards every two years instead of the current three-year standard.

Senate Bill 147, sponsored by Sen. Benny Shendo, D-Jemez Pueblo, and Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, would slightly change how recreational-use cannabis is taxed. The state’s Taxation and Revenue Department includes the Cannabis Excise Tax when charging cannabis companies for gross receipts taxes, a process often referred to as pyramiding. If passed into law, SB 147 would remove cannabis taxes from what GRT can be applied to.

The session ends next Saturday, March 18, at noon.

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